Pandemic accelerated UK’s shift online, says Ofcom

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UK adults spent an average of three hours and 47 minutes online every day during the pandemic, an annual survey of media habits by regulator Ofcom has found.

That was over an hour longer than adults in Germany, France and Spain.

In addition, online shoppers in the UK spent more than £110bn for the first time in 2020.

Ofcom said the Online Nation 2021 report revealed how the pandemic had accelerated a shift to online.

In a year when many had to find what entertainment they could at home, gaming saw a big increase with half who played telling Ofcom it helped them get through lockdown.

Sixty-two per cent of adults, and 92% of 16 to 24 year-olds said they played computer games.

Communication at work and at play also changed as workplaces closed and travel was restricted.

“Zoom had extraordinary growth – from a few hundred thousand users in the first two months of 2020 to more than 13 million in April and May,” the report said.

TikTok growth

The report found many people were glued to their phones. Mobile apps cost British people nearly £2.45bn with most going on Tinder, Disney+, YouTube and Netflix.

TikTok grew rapidly, Ofcom said, from three million adult visitors in September 2019 to 14 million by March this year.

Young adults aged 18-24 more than doubled the time they spent on the short-form video app each day, from 17 minutes to 38 minutes in September 2020.

And, as the High Street was forced to close, online sales rose 48%, to close to £113bn.


Half of adults said that news and information was a big reason they went online – but they often encountered misinformation.

Some 46% of UK adults who looked for information about the pandemic said they had found misleading or untrue information.

Among the most commonly shared falsehoods in the first quarter of 2021 were that face masks offered no protection or caused harm, and that the number of deaths linked to coronavirus was much lower than reported.

The report found that “adults are as likely to use social media to find information about the Covid-19 pandemic as they are to use news sites and apps” with Facebook the main source. However, only 16% who used Facebook for information about Covid-19 said they trusted it as a source.


A phone with TikTok held in someone's hand



Around one in eight online adults and more than one in five of those aged 15-34 said they used an online dating service before the first lockdown.

But the money lost to romance scams increased 12% to reach £18.5m.

Nearly half (49%) of UK adults visited an adult website or app in September 2020.

Ofcom found the largest site, Pornhub, was visited by around half of all UK online men, but just over one in six of online women.

In December, the site removed millions of user-generated videos from view after the New York Times alleged it was “infested” with illegal material, allegations its parent company Mindgeek denied.

Digital divide

The report notes that while many benefited from access to the net, it meant that in Ofcom’s words “lockdown had a greater effect on people who are digitally excluded”.

It noted nearly one in five over-64s and roughly one in 10 in lower socio-economic households did not have internet access, turning a digital divide into a social one.

The digital divide also extended to schoolchildren. It found that nearly all children had access to the internet, but 4% had access only by mobile phone. One in five children lacked a device that would be suitable for doing school work on.

While children spent more time online, the report found nearly half reported “negative experiences” . On mobile phones, 30% of these negative experiences were being contacted online by someone they didn’t know who wanted to be their “friend”.

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